Anyone troubled by nightmares featuring Victorian porcelain clowns or blank-eyed baby dolls would be well advised to skip an annual event hosted by the History Center of Olmsted County in Rochester, Minnesota.
As it has since 2019, the organization is inviting the public to vote on which doll from its collection is the creepiest, reports Samantha Fischer for KARE 11. Spooky season enthusiasts will be able to meet the 2021 contenders, as well as last year’s winners, at a “Creepy Cocktail Party” hosted at a former armory known as the Castle this weekend. (The 2021 winner will be announced at the October 23 bash.)
Chosen from a collection of about 100 dolls, the nine antique toys in the running include Princess Aouda, an 1860s china doll in a lace-trimmed dress; Miss Havisham, an 1880s porcelain bisque doll named after the antagonist of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations; a doll dubbed Lizzie Borden in a nod to the 19th-century murder suspect; and Lady Corn Husk.
“We select nine dolls from the collection and give them fun names and put them out on social media and ask for people to vote on which they think is the creepiest,” the center’s executive director, Wayne Gannaway, tells Minnesota Public Radio (MPR)’s Ava Ewald. (Participants can cast their vote via the center’s Facebook and Instagram pages.)
“It is a mix of the history and the fun,” says Abby Currier, community engagement coordinator at the center, to KTTC’s Megan Zemple. “We could put these dolls out on display with nothing with them and the chances of people stopping to vote are slim to none. So we dress it up, make it fun, but we also want to tell the story of how we are protecting the dolls, how we are conserving them in this fun and exciting way.”
The winner of the 2019 contest was a 169-year-old cloth doll with faded paint that left it looking like a “mummified child,” as Brigit Katz wrote for Smithsonian magazine at the time. Other contestants that year included a doll whose eyes suddenly snap to attention when it’s lifted and another with real human hair. In 2020, Mrs. Danvers, a doll with a giant hole in the back of her head, emerged victorious.
According to Linda Rodriguez McRobbie of Smithsonian, it’s quite common for people to find many dolls “creepy”—a distinct concept from “scary.” Frank McAndrew, a psychologist at Knox College in Illinois, explained that creepiness is related to uncertainty.
“You’re getting mixed messages. If something is clearly frightening, you scream, you run away. If something is disgusting, you know how to act,” he told Smithsonian in 2015. “But if something is creepy… it might be dangerous but you’re not sure it is. … There’s an ambivalence.”
Dolls may come across as creepy because they exist in the “uncanny valley,” looking similar to humans without being human. Patricia Hogan, curator at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, and associate editor of the American Journal of Play, told Smithsonian that dolls became more human-looking in the 18th and 19th centuries.
“I think that’s where the unease comes with dolls,” she said. “They look like humans and in some ways move like humans, and the more convincing they look or move or look like humans, the more uneasy we become.”
Yet dolls remain beloved playthings for children. Gannaway tells MPR that this trend once applied to the figurines headed to the Castle for the tea party, too.
“The dolls were at one time someone’s prized possession,” he says. “I think that’s something really special about this contest. It brings that to light. So on the one hand, there’s this sometimes unnerving sense that the dolls look creepy, but on the other hand, I think people intuitively understand, ‘Wow, that doll was loved at one time.’”